Wednesday October 04, 2023

Current state of China-Russia ties ahead of Xi's Moscow trip

The bilateral alliance faces growing scrutiny since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine

March 20, 2023
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting in Beijing. —Twitter/SpokespersonCHN/File
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting in Beijing. —Twitter/SpokespersonCHN/File

BEIJING: Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to embark on his first state visit to Russia in four years, spotlighting an alliance that has faced growing scrutiny since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Here are the key aspects of China and Russia's bilateral relationship:

Common international goal

In February 2022, just ahead of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin declared a "no-limits" partnership between the two countries.

The countries enjoyed a close ideological bond in the early Cold War period rooted in their common history of communist revolution, although the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s began a three-decade freeze.

Ties between Moscow and Beijing strengthened considerably after the fall of the Soviet Union, spurred on in recent years by Xi's and Putin's shared opposition to what they see as Western international hegemony.

Putin said on Sunday that relations were at "the highest point".

Trading partners

The vast neighbours have built a close economic trade relationship throughout recent decades, with China now the largest buyer of Russian oil.

These ties have remained strong throughout the Ukraine war. China's trade with Russia reached a record $190 billion last year, Beijing customs data shows.

Moscow's economic ties with the European Union (EU) have largely been severed by a wave of crippling sanctions, making China an even more important customer for Russian exports.

Xi's visit to the Russian capital comes as bilateral trade continues to grow, with Chinese imports and exports showing double-digit annual growth in January and February, according to customs data.

Xi and Putin: 'Old friends'

The Chinese and Russian leaders have developed a close rapport over the past decade that often conflicts with their otherwise stern public demeanours.

Xi used rare personal language to describe his Russian counterpart during a regional summit in Uzbekistan last September, greeting Putin warmly as "my dear old friend".

And despite repeated urging by Western leaders, Xi has thus far declined to condemn the Ukraine invasion.

The Chinese leader's comments on the Ukraine war echo the rhetoric adopted repeatedly by Putin — that NATO's eastward expansion and US-led western hegemonic behaviour bear central responsibility for the conflict.

For Xi, publicly demonstrating the mutual affection he enjoys with Putin allows him to bolster his reputation as a leading statesman, a key pillar of his ambitions for China to play a bigger role on the global stage.

Unequal partners?

China has blossomed into the world's second-largest economy since the Chinese Communist Party initiated a dramatic campaign of economic reforms in the 1980s.

Its robust tech sector and advanced manufacturing capabilities now stand in stark contrast to Russia's largely energy-dependent economy, which in 2022 was roughly 10 times smaller than China´s, according to GDP estimates from the World Bank.

The lack of any formal military alliance or core ideological framework has caused some analysts to refer to the relationship as merely transactional.

The strain on Russia's economy and Putin's international pariah status — solidified last week by an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for war crimes — stand to make the relationship even more lopsided as the war drags on.

"Putin wants an even relationship with China, like with a twin brother, but it's not the case," analyst Timothy Ash told AFP.

"Russia has no other option" than to turn to China, he said.